Australia’s ‘asylum seeker issue’ has been pushed off our front pages lately. The Abbott government’s early Christmas presents to school children, car workers, aged care workers, child care workers and low-paid workers of all stripes have succeeded where Operation Sovereign Borders was failing.
There’s no doubt that the year ahead holds a lot of uncertainty for many Australians thanks to this ‘no surprises’ government, and that will push the victims of our refugee policies even further from our minds.
I know a bit about uncertainty and its effects. It was the compassion and kindness of my fellow Australians which helped me recover from the greatest uncertainty in my life.
Twelve years ago, in August 2001, I was paralysed with fear. It was the turbulent end of a 15-year marriage spent mostly in my ex-husband’s native Britain and I had an overwhelming, childlike, urge to go home.
What did ‘home’ even mean? I’m an Australian by birth but I’d spent a grand total of six years in my native land compared to 20 years in Hong Kong and 13 in the UK.
The poet Robert Frost wrote, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
A line of poetry did not seem the most rational basis for such a momentous decision but it was all I had. Oh, and two young daughters relying on me to make the right choice. I felt caught between two impossibilities.
That’s where I was when a boatload of refugees was picked up by the Tampa.
I watched, from the other side of the world, as the ugly events played out. I saw the footage of people finally coming ashore, so near and yet so far from their hoped-for destination.
The women who came off the boat had taken their children into the unknown, just as I was thinking of doing, but in such very different circumstances.
They were carrying all they had left in bin liners. I would have to buy plane tickets and get quotes to ship furniture, books and ornaments. The contrast was enough to quell my fear and make me feel somewhat ashamed of my cowardice.
I had something, thanks to nothing more than good fortune, which separated my fate from theirs. I had an Australian passport.
I’ve thought of those women often over the years, knowing as I do how difficult it is to take your trusting but frightened children on a journey which is just as strange and fraught to you as it is to them.
When we arrived in Brisbane in December that year, everyone made us feel welcome.
People were eager to help me, from a kind woman at Centrelink to the wonderful mums at my daughters’ school. My cousins helped me find somewhere to live and filled it with their old furniture and crockery until I could afford to ship our stuff over many months later.
I was exhausted and thin. When I had to explain how we’d come to be in Brisbane my voice would involuntarily drop to a whisper. It was years before I had it in me to get back to work. I left England as a magazine editor and my first job in Brisbane was as a cleaner.
And I would think often of those women disembarking from the Tampa and everything they must have been through.
It wasn’t the first time my passport had provided certainty.
When the negotiations were underway between China and Britain over the fate of Hong Kong in the early 1980s, there were at least two occasions when rioting Chinese youths took to the streets to vent their frustration.
I was as anxious about Hong Kong’s future in those uncertain times as everyone else but there was a fundamental difference.
One evening I was talking about those fears to a Hong Kong Chinese called Kenneth. He asked me, if I was so worried, why I wasn’t out on the streets throwing bricks too.
“Because I have something they don’t,” I said. “I have a passport.”
He seemed surprised that I, a privileged expatriate, grasped that plain and simple truth.
But it makes all the difference in the world. It gives me a home in a privileged, peaceful country which, when I needed to come here, took me in without hesitation and with much warmth.
This Christmas will be a celebration shared with the present Mr Baxter and my two daughters, who have thrived under an Australian sky as I could never have dared to hope when I was paralysed with uncertainty 12 years ago.
But my thoughts are turning to the brave men and women who risk everything to give their children a better life, only to have their hopes and lives dashed against the cruel rock of Australia’s asylum seeker policies.
My little journey nearly broke me, but it was nothing in comparison to theirs.
In the uncertain times ahead let’s not forget those in the greatest need who are facing the greatest uncertainties of all.
The brutality of our policies towards asylum seekers has been steadily escalating since the Tampa in 2001. These things are done in our name because our politicians, with rare exception, believe it’s what we want.
A little compassion goes a long way towards healing. I believe it’s the season for it.
Merry Christmas – this is my last post for 2013. I’ll be taking a summer break, returning on 26 January. Til then, my best wishes to you all.